ZZ Top is Forever Houston Strong at Smart Financial Centre
Written by: Chris Gray, Houston Press

Have mercy. As the Texas coast continues gasping for air after Hurricane Harvey’s body blow (even as Florida deals with its own sucker-punch weather), it’s worth reflecting on the many faces recovery can assume. First responders pulling people from rising floodwaters may not seem to share all that much with musicians attempting to entertain an audience who may not have all that much to cheer about, but they do. Neither is an enviable task, but in their own ways both are essential.

ZZ Top, as only they can, might call what they do voodoo healing. Sunday night at Smart Financial Centre, the venue’s first public event since the storm, the trio that is synonymous with their home state stepped into the breach to demonstrate that every raunchy guitar lick, bass-string pluck and cymbal flare could inch us all down the path to putting the terrible events of the past few weeks behind us. Baby steps.

Both the band and Smart Centre also pitched in to donate $100,000 to the Salvation Army of Fort Bend County, and a handful of rescue workers were recognized onstage before the headliners’ 75-minute set; agencies represented (among others) were the Richmond Volunteer Fire Department, Fort Bend County EMS and the Fort Bend County Fire Marshal’s office. For their part, ZZ Top greeted the gravity of the occasion with a little welcome gallows humor. “We got to drive here tonight, we didn’t have to swim,” Billy F. Gibbons told the crowd.

But mostly Gibbons, Dusty Hill and Frank Beard, marking their debut at the eight-month-old venue, delivered a tremendously satisfying, not at all rote performance with clockwork efficiency, well-seasoned swagger and, from Gibbons and Hill, some of the most amusing onstage choreography you’re ever likely to witness from a couple of dudes in their late sixties. The way they move together is also a tribute to their great unspoken musical bond; whether they are at opposite ends of the stage or close enough to catch cold should the other one sneeze, Gibbons and Hill are always in sync.
If Hill’s bass is about to take over for a few bars, Gibbons is likely right beside him giving the hocus-pocus fingers. Best of all is when the two men lock into a mutual trance and begin to sway in tandem, resulting in an apparently unconscious move I have decided to call the Two-Headed Camel. (Do they have to rehearse that at sound check?) Not to take anything away from Beard, clad in a “Houston Strong” T-shirt though usually appearing as a shock of blond hair obscured behind his fortresslike kit, working his oversize sticks with hummingbird velocity and making the skull on each kick-drum light up with regularity.

Sunday’s set was roomier than ZZ’s Houston-area fans are accustomed to getting, considering that’s likely to be at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo. Here they were wise to keep Buck Owens’s “Act Naturally” — take a bow, steel-guitar wiz Elwood Francis, a.k.a. Gibbons’s longtime guitar tech — and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “16 Tons,” which Gibbons weirded out into a de facto Jeff Beck tribute, from this past March’s appearance. But they also drew “Chartreuse” and “I Gotsta Get Paid” from La Futura, an album that ages better every day and already sounded like a natural sequel to Tres Hombres when it came out five years ago.

And nothing against explosive Hendrix cover “Foxy Lady,” except Sunday it paled against their dip into Muddy Waters, a song alternately known as “Rollin’ Stone,” “Catfish Blues” and “Still a Fool.” (Also “Two Trains Runnin’,” sometimes.) Sung by Hill, it gave Gibbons the opportunity to unspool some especially sick fretwork while proving he could finger-wave “hi” to the fans in the balconies and literally not miss a lick. Have mercy.
Of course the “hits” did not disappoint either, even for those of us who would be happy if “Waitin’ For the Bus” and “Jesus Just Left Chicago” were stretched across an entire evening. “I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide” and “Just Got Paid” came on especially strong; by the time “Sharp Dressed Man” and “Legs” rolled around, several of my neighbors in Section 101 were baying like coyotes. However tough the trials our Southeast Texas community is facing right now, these tres hombres simply could not be better ministers of morale.
Random Notebook Dump: Sunday's show was the first of three for which fans who purchase a ticket and donate either one nonperishable food item or a cleaning product will receive a buy-one-get-one ticket voucher. The drive continues with Bryan Adams (tomorrow) and Sammy Hagar & the Circle (Friday). See for details.

Got Me Under Pressure
Waitin’ For the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago
Gimme All Your Lovin’
Pincushion Blues
I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide
I Gotsta Get Paid
Foxy Lady/J. Hendrix
My Head’s In Mississippi
Rollin’ Stone (Still a Fool)/M. Waters
Sixteen Tons/T.E. Ford
Act Naturally/B. Owens
Just Got Paid
Sharp Dressed Man

La Grange
Jailhouse Rock

© Smart Financial Centre